“The Ghost of Fifth Street” Page 1

As I often do I’ve been contemplating comic books lately. This time I’ve been thinking about comic books and how they’re written. Not the nuts and bolts of how to write something but the style that a comic book is written in.

Over the years I’ve heard comic books (and other things) described as “Dated.” It’s not a compliment. The speaker usually means the comic book seems old fashioned. That’s a synonym for dull. I’ve always been of the mind that everything is dated. Everything is of its time. We just can’t always see the markers of that time until some more time has passed. Every comic book that is made today will seem dated in a certain amount of years. That’s the way of the world.

One of the criticisms I hear of comic books from the 1970s and 1980s is that they are over written. There are too many words on the page. Some time around the late 1990s a new writing style developed that was called “Decompressed Storytelling” and it took over a lot of the comics biz. It was a storytelling style that had a lot fewer words in it. Gone were thought balloons and omniscient narrators but first person narration in captions was here to stay.

I was down with decompressed storytelling when it was new and on the fringe. It depended a lot more on art and needed a good artist to pull it off so not everyone could do it well. But soon everyone was doing it and there was a big downside. Stories that used to be told in one or two issues now took six issues. I found it insane that Marvel retold Spider-Man’s origin story, which was originally only ten pages, over the course of six issues. That’s roughly one hundred and twenty five pages. That’s nuts.

So the bloom came off the rose for me somewhere in the early 2000s. I was no longer interested in decompressed storytelling in any way. Not that I never read any again but, as a style, it no longer held my interest in any way.

I also want to say that most of that kind of storytelling came out of mainstream comics in which the writer and artists were two different people. Being mostly an indie comics guy I have read and continue to read a lot of comics that are written and drawn by one person. I’ve noticed these one person comics are almost never accused of being over written. I think that’s because there is a natural economy of words when the person writing them is also the person drawing.

When a comic book writer hands off his writing for someone else to draw I think there is a tendency for the writer to want to put as much of himself on the page as possible. Drawing takes a lot more time and work to do than writing so maybe a writer can overcompensate a little bit. Then the criticism of overwriting can come into play.

I’ve recently come to a new conclusion. I prefer over writing to under writing. I’ve never had this thought before but I must have been leaning that way all along. I’ve read way too many comic book where almost nothing happens. I’ve heard other people make that same complaint but it has never occurred to me before now to call that out as underwriting. A comic book where not much happens is an underwritten comic book. It’s very frustrating when that happens.

Recently I’ve been reading a lot of one dollar Marvel True Believers comics. The ones I’ve read have been reprints of key 1970s comic books. That’s the era where there were lot more words on the page. It turns out that’s okay with me. If the writing is good how can more of it be bad? That’s what it really comes down to. If the writer is good with words and weaves them together in a pleasing way why do I care if there are a lot of them on the page? As long as it doesn’t interfere with the art and story all is good.

If the writing was bad in one of these overwritten stories I skipped stuff. It wasn’t holding my interest so what did it matter if there were ten words or two that I wasn’t reading? A story I don’t like doesn’t get better if there is less to it and a story I do like I want more of.

Early Conan the Barbarians are a good example of a comic with a lot of writing that I liked. Marvel reprinted four or five early issues and they were all good. There was a lot of writing in them but it was good writing. I was drawn in. The story was well crafted and a lot happened in those short twenty two pages. I got a beginning, middle, and end. Often today’s underwritten stories are a muddle of middle.

One last thing that got me thinking of this was that I bought a comic this week that was underwritten. It was the last issue of a six issue mini series. Over all the series has been a good one. I bought all six issues after all. But the last issue was over a quarter of the way through. Issue five ended with a cliffhanger after a surprise plot twist but then issue six resolved that cliffhanger right away which pretty much resolved the whole story. The last three quarters of the last issue was cleaning up the mess. It was a little disappointing.

That’s the word I’d use with most underwritten stories. Disappointing. They’re not necessarily bad stories but they offer me very little. When you go out to lunch and they serve you a handful of grapes you will be disappointed. I expect a meal for my money when I’m buying lunch and I expect a story with my comic book when I buy one. I don’t always get one. When something is overwritten I usually get a story. “At least the portions are big” is a real thing for me when it comes to comic books.